The economic imperative for South Asia

From Himal Southasian, Volume 12, Number 3 (MAR 1999)

The new Secretary General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) spoke to Himal editor Kanak Mani Dixit soon after assuming office.

Do you feel confident about taking up this new South Asian assignment?

Reasonably so. I have handled South Asian and multilateral work and was actually the first director general of the new multilateral and South Asia desk when it was set up at the Sri Lankan foreign ministry. Both in that position as well as in assignments to the Untied Nations in New York, I have had the good fortune to work with my counterparts from all the other South Asian countries, and to immerse myself in the issues of the region. 1 had also been to all the capitals in the course of my work.

As you come in, what are the trends you detect in the working of SAARC?

To begin with, as a delegate I used to be on the ‘other side’ and critical of the organisation for its obvious drawbacks. Now that I am within the system, I am able to discern the various challenges it faces. These are being addressed. Overall, there are clear signs that SAARC is maturing.

The Secretariat functions under the direction of the political leadership. Among the political leadership, there is a movement away from cautious, shy and modest goal-setting. This has been seen in the resolve to tackle the core issues of trade, commerce and economic cooperation, whereas earlier we were limited to “soft issues” such as health, animal  husbandry or telecommunications. In the international arena as well, saarc has begun to establish functional con1 tact with the asean and the European Union. It is important for South Asia to respond collectively to the globalisation of the world economy, that is, developing its promise and avoiding its pitfalls.

Was there a negative fallout for SAARC from the Indo-Pakistan nuclear tests?

The tests did seem at first to augur dire prospects, and the Colombo Summit itself came close to being postponed. However, the position of Sri Lanka, as the incoming chair of SAARC and the host country, was that the summit must be held precisely because of the fall-out—political fallout—of the tests. In a sense, the tests ‘tested’ South Asia’s solidarity as well. The summit was the first meeting of the prime ministers of India and Pakistan after the tests, and it was the prelude to a series of bilateral talks that continued at the non-aligned summit in South Africa and at the General Assembly in New York. The very fact that a summit could be held during such a crisis period indicated a more mature attitude in a region where summits have been postponed for much less in the past.

How true is it that the South Asian countries are beginning to evolve a common stance in international venues?

There is evidence of formal SAARC positions emerging in international fora. Instead of ducking issues, the seven countries are coming out with agreed points of view at international meetings, even if they may initially sound a bit bland. This common approach can be seen evolving in such issues as the environment, trade and intellectual property rights. However, perhaps more significant was what happened at the UN General Assembly in September, where a joint position among SAARC member states was negotiated quietly on a matter as sensitive as the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.

Could you elaborate?

Gladly. The joint position was a response to a draft resolution brought before the UN by a group of Western countries, deploring the tests conducted by India and Pakistan. Both these countries wanted amendments to the Western draft, and Sri Lanka was approached as the current SAARC chair. The seven agreed on a set of amendments. As it turned out, those amendments, jointly sponsored by the seven and introduced by Sri Lanka, did not pass, but for those who    watch trends it seemed quite significant that the regional countries, including those perceived to be the most antagonistic, had come together to present a joint position at the United Nations on a highly emotive and political issue. While one should not exaggerate, this definitely represented a quiet victory for SAARC cohesion, even though the amendments were defeated—by a mere three votes.

Today, the chairman as well as the secretary general of SAARC happen to be Sri Lankan. How much will it help the organisation?

That’s a coincidence—happy or not, SAARC will judge. The most important position in SAARC is that of the rotational chairman. It is the dynamism and interest of whoever is in that position that provides much of the impetus and initiative for the organisation. When the chairmanship changes, the leadership changes, and this sometimes could hamper continuity if the focus shifts drastically. Sri Lanka’s chairmanship began well, for the Colombo summit made some significant impact, 1 believe. SAARC is very much a creature of the political leadership. The Secretariat’s role is to coordinate the agreed areas of work, to monitor progress, to service the meetings that are held and to implement policy decisions. The secretary general sheds his nationality and is at the service of South Asia while he holds office.

What was the significant impact made at the Colombo Summit?

Without doubt it was the decision to emphasise the pervasive economic imperative for South Asia. An imperative both within the region and in relation to its global economic and technological environment. This was the special focus introduced by the host leader, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, for the summit. We are at a stage where the developed world has begun to recognise the entity of saarc, and it seems clear that even India, with its powerful economy, would see benefits in approaching the developed markets under the SAARC umbrella.

Will this primary focus on economics be seen as a sell-out on the social and humanitarian front?

The focus of SAARC in areas such as poverty alleviation, health, children, or gender issues, is important, and should continue. At the same time, the importance of economics is obvious. Advance in the economic sector will lead to a whole series of ripple effects which will help the individual economies and their populations. Also, the Colombo Summit has set up mechanisms for a Social Charter to be drafted, which will keep the momentum on social and humanitarian concerns alive.

How did the Colombo summit get so involved with economics?

The Colombo Summit took place in a situation of economic and financial uncertainty, internationally. This required informed responses from South Asia. The Male Summit of 1997, with the enthusiastic backing of Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, had decided to set up a free trade area in South Asia by the year 2001. Even though it was a well-meaning goal, many officials were surprised when they learnt of it. At Colombo, so to speak, there was a return to realism. The optimistic decision of Male was converted into a more practical programme and negotiations have now begun to carefully address all the concerns and complexities involved in the creation of a free trade area. Following that, a treaty would be in place by 2001. This would allow for the phasing in of its provisions, take account of the special plight of the LDCs, work out compensatory measures for revenue loss—that is, ensure equitable benefits for all seven shareholders.

Does it do to continue to keep contentious bilateral issues outside the organisation’s purview?

Well, the taboo on discussion of bilateral and contentious matters remains in the saarc Charter, and the reality is that the organisation is not yet ready for a political mechanism to formally go in that direction. Although, since Male, there has been clear acknowledgement that a process of informal political consultations would be ‘useful’. However, there is more than enough work remaining to be done regionally in the economic and social spheres, where cooperation and joint activities are vitally important and possible.

What about the “growth quadrangle” idea that is being pursued among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, which has seen some criticism?

I think that has to be permitted. There are, after all, very few projects that can include every country of South Asia. Maldives will have no interest in a rinderpest project, while Nepal and Bhutan may see no benefit in work to combat sea erosion. The Charter does say that more than three countries may cooperate under the SAARC umbrella on matters of mutual concern. The Male Summit did resolve that issue. However, the Secretariat’s role in the matter is not yet spelt out.

Should the job description of the secretary general be enhanced?

It would help for the position to be invested with more authority, to take certain careful initiatives. For continuity’s sake, the tenure of the secretary general could from my successor’s term be increased to five years. I would like to limit myself to a two-year term, as has been the case, except in the case of my predecessor who alone had a three-year term. There is no formal mechanism within SAARC for the Secretariat to press new ideas into the agenda. Annually, an “Analytical Report of the Secretary General” is presented to the Standing Committee, but that is largely a review. On the other hand, there is nothing to stop the secretary general from presenting new proposals to his political bosses who may, in their wisdom, choose to accept them if they are credible, practical and would advance SAARC goals.

How do you see yourself as secretary general?

As a man of transition, hoping to help and facilitate an acceleration of the organisation’s activities in the next two years in which period, incidentally, we cross over into Millennium III. This is, after all, a critical period when the need for an effective regional response to crucial economic issues is pronounced. By the next cycle of secretaries general (starting again with Bangladesh), the role and authority of the secretary general would be clearer and could be ‘re-designed’ with a fresh job description based on a very pragmatic assessment of the last few years’ experience. I emphasise “very pragmatic”.

Do you intend to be a ‘daring’ secretary general?

Cautiously daring, if that’s possible. The secretary general can come up with ideas and initiatives, but then he must have the backing of all the seven members. He can stick his neck out a little bit, but if you are adventurist or push too hard, it would be counterproductive and bad for the organisation. Certainly, 1 would do nothing which would invite objections from any member state, be it Maldives or India. You may say that I am still feeling my way here, but I hope to be daring in conceding shortcomings and attempting to contend with them.

Is your budget adequate?

For the functions and responsibilities as defined, it is adequate. But it is not over-generous. We are facing some challenges right now because of the additional economic tasks devolved on the Secretariat. We are in the process of hiring an economic expert, which is the first time that the Secretariat has gone beyond the seven nationally-nominated directors who are part of our executive staff. We need to upgrade our data-bases, and improve the capacity to play a more professional role in imaginatively carrying out our leaders’ policy.

SAARC summits get a bad press for being big on ceremony.

The summits actually have a tremendous value. Perhaps they could be better organised, with less ceremony, and less dancing girls and drummers on airport tarmacs. But then every summit has a made-for-television character. At the same time, the summits have a very definite, very central role because the really major policy decisions are taken there. As mentioned already, the Colombo Summit was held amidst heightened tension between the two bigger member states. The value of togetherness, family, if you will, seems to have overcome any tension, and the members were confident enough to meet despite the problems. Most important, that confidence was once again vindicated. The summits bring the leaders together in a neutral, helpful setting. That is the main thing.

So you think that the organisation has grown?

SAARC is younger than the EU or the ASEAN. For all the criticisms that it receives, you have to realise that the organisation has never stood still between 1985 and 1999.’There is a bit of an image problem, given that people’s expectations are based on looking at older organisations like the ASEAN. On the economic front, there are great losses because comparative advantages are not being developed, leading to duplication and what Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina calls “unwelcome competition”. Just as trade and economic linkages have to be encouraged, we are also emphasising more people-to-people contact, and more cultural connections among the member states. Despite great cultural and religious diversity, South Asia through SAARC, has recognised that the region is heir to a great common civilisational continuum.

From which group outside government do you see the most support coming for SAARC?

There are those with the romantic notion that saarc can do anything, whose counterfoil are those who look at SAARC with some ‘SAARCasm’, a term that a cynic or two in the Sri Lankan foreign ministry coined. However, in between, a realistic, balanced approach to the organisation seems to be gaining ground. This is particularly evident in the enthusiasm that professional organisations have shown for a regional vision, including the business community, architects, surgeons, town planners, parliamentarians, lawyers, and so on. The interest shown by the business community, particularly through the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and national groups like the Confederation of Indian Industry [CII], is quite heartening. At a time when we are just scratching the surface in terms of economic cooperation, these businessmen are running way ahead of the governments and bureaucracies. Captains of industry do, after all, wield a certain amount of leverage, and their friendly persuasion could help in bringing the possibilities of a regional trade and commerce regime a little closer to reality. It is they who are actually in the business of commercial and economic activity.

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